Millions of people suffer from what are called lifestyle diseases. Though many of them are treated with expensive drugs, experts are convinced that a different approach is possible.
“The major lifestyle diseases are very treatable with exercise,” according Winfried Banzer, a professor at the University of Frankfurt’s Sports Science Institute. Banzer said he would use exercise to treat cardiovascular complaints and metabolism disorders, noting that “they’re responsible for about 70 per cent of the premature deaths in Germany, and for a large proportion of healthcare costs.” It is astounding that exercise, an inexpensive alternative to drug treatment, still receives relatively little attention, Banzer said.
He pointed to an English study carried out in 1958 that found drivers of double-decker buses in London to have a significantly higher risk of heart attacks than the buses’ conductors, who moved around on the vehicles.
According to Bernd Wolfarth, a sports physician at Munich Technical University Hospital, the ability of regular exercise to lower expenditure on medications is indubitable. He cites diabetes patients as an example: The more time they spend on outdoor activities, the less money they spend on medications and other therapies. So Wolfarth advises stepping up one’s daily physical activity. “Starting to exercise is really worth it,” he said. “At any age.” Even septuagenarians, who exercise will experience a health boost over their less active contemporaries, Wolfarth said.
But people, who have a chronic illness ought to consult with a doctor first, he added. The doctor should determine how much exercise the patient can take, draw up a specific exercise programme and then monitor the results — just like a prescription for medication.
Wolfarth said that regular exercise improved the condition of a person’s blood vessels and could even repair existing damage. It also lowers blood pressure more effectively than some drugs do, he remarked, so hypertensives can use exercise to improve their blood pressure levels. Although there is no guarantee they will be able to discontinue their medications, there is a good chance that the dosages will not have to be raised, Wolfarth said.
The same goes for diabetics. “Exercise enhances the effectiveness of the hormone insulin, which lowers blood sugar levels,” noted Andreas Fritsche, treasurer of the German Diabetes Society. A direct effect of regular physical activity is the stimulation of cells in the pancreas responsible for insulin production. In addition, the body becomes more sensitive to the hormone and increases sugar metabolism.
“Today we also know that metformin, the active ingredient in medications often given to type-2 diabetes patients, has an effect similar to exercise,” Fritsche said. It uses the same molecular pathways in the body that physical activity does “so exercise can boost the effectiveness of metformin.”
However, Mr. Fritsche strongly warned against the false assumption that diabetics, who begin exercising, will be able to immediately stop taking their medicine.
In fact, the effects of exercise therapy depend on the patient, Fritsche noted. In one study, 400 people with a heightened risk of developing diabetes underwent a fitness programme as a preventative measure. Their condition was regularly checked with heart rate monitors and blood tests.
“For most of them, improved fitness actually did increase the effect of insulin,” Fritsche said. “But for 20 to 30 per cent, it didn’t.”